As the school year started and I saw many new faces at our opening district-wide meeting, I realized that I am now one of the veteran teachers. It made me consider how important and valuable my mentors have been to me. How can I possibly share the wisdom that’s been shared with me, when those are my stories and experiences? What does it take to be a supportive, encouraging resource to newer teachers?
Every year my district begins the new school year with a convocation, a gathering of the entire staff of the district. During the next hour or two, we welcome our new staff members. There is usually some reflection on the accomplishments of the past year and encouragement for the coming year. We hear from district and school board leadership, who all share reflections on the past year and encouragements for the year to come. This year during the Superintendent’s presentation, he asked everyone with ten or more years in the district to stand. As he continued increasing years, I was still standing, and there were fewer and fewer still standing with me.
Reality hit: I am a veteran teacher now.
This thought terrifies me. In fact, in the spring I told one of our retiring teachers, “Just what do you think you’re doing, retiring and leaving me here as the veteran in our department at this grade level?” She smiled and assured me that I know what I’m doing. My mind cried out, “But I don’t! I don’t have your years of experience; the wisdom of the lessons you’ve learned; the strategies you’ve learned or developed!”
That’s true. I don’t have her experiences or wisdom. But I do have my own.
Already this school year, three keys have become apparent in my work with newer teachers:
Listen. Really, I don’t know how I can best support and encourage these new teachers, or how I can develop strong collaboration and rapport with them, without listening. They aren’t coming to team meetings or department meetings to be preached at by some wizened old teacher. They are just like me: they come to share successes and ask for ideas to solve problems. One tip sheet for new teachers encourages them to go to veterans, pointing out that veterans have much to share. I told one of my classes earlier this week, “You have two ears and one mouth; be sure in your group work that you’re listening twice as much as you’re talking.” This is important in our classwork, and it’s critical in our weekly team and department meetings.
Ask Questions. As professionals who have refined our skills for years, we know how critical it is to ask students the right question at the right time. We ask ourselves questions all the time, reflecting on what we can do to improve the way we’re working with our students. It is the same for novice teachers. By asking questions, we can help new colleagues learn how to reflect on their own practice. Additionally, we can show them that we haven’t “arrived” at the pinnacle of the profession, either. The same kinds of reflective questions they begin to ask themselves daily are the ones we ask ourselves, too, even after years of experience.
Empathize. To new teachers, we veterans look like we have it all together. We stand at classroom doors, calm, cool, collected, smiling and welcoming students, while the newer teacher may be racing back from the copier that jammed while running the sets of papers needed for today’s lesson. We don’t seem to come to lunch flustered and frustrated by that student who just wouldn’t listen today. Yet, we do have those days when the copier jams at the wrong moment, or, despite all the strategies we’ve tried, that one student has pushed every button and spent ten minutes standing on our last nerve. We need to share some of those tough experiences with newer colleagues. While we need to empathize; we also need to encourage and support these newer teachers. One of the points in this blog by Elena Aguilar is key: “This will get better.” Through empathy, we share that we know and understand the challenges of these early days. Through our own stories and day-to-day modeling now, we are living proof that not only does it get better, but also that we love what we do and come back year after year to do it again.
I’m realizing that being a veteran member of the faculty doesn’t require special training or expertise. It’s something I’ve grown into through developing thoughtful, reflective practice. My mentors listened to me, asked me questions, and empathized with me. As they continued to strengthen their practices by pursuing ongoing professional development, reading current research, and reflective questioning, they modeled for me what it takes to grow as a teacher and lifelong learner. Those of us who are growing into this role of veteran teacher need to remember that the newer teachers are looking to us, just as we did to the veteran teachers when we started teaching. No, we don’t have those veterans’ experiences and wisdom to share. We have our own. That is just as valuable and important.
Photo: Three “generations” of teachers: retired teacher and mentor Tari Hilbish; Tricia Ebner, 24 years of teaching; Chad Rhoades, 2 years of teaching.